It’s a mighty long time ago. Her music might have been forgotten. Some songs, she wrote. Others, she collected, mostly in Kentucky and the Appalachians that were so close to her soul. You know some of the songs, if not by name, then by melody or chorus, perhaps from a long-ago campfire or maybe on an album recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary or Pete Seeger. Right now, I’m listening to Jean Ritchie singing in the Great Hall in Manhattan’s Cooper Union, recorded by WNYC in 1985. She’s singing with Oscar Brand, who was about as famous as she was, and perhaps as talented.
On December 8, Jean Ritchie will be 92 years old. In her lifetime, she has been an activist, a folk singer, a song collector, a Fulbright scholar, an extraordinary dulcimer player (with the lightest touch), and a recipient of The National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, our nation’s highest honor for a folk artist.
Her music is magical. The rounds on the last song on a new 2-CD tribute entitled “Dear Jean” testifies to it—“Twilight A-Stealing” is sung by “The Ritchie Nieces” in Berea, Kentucky, where Jean Ritchie now resides. Particularly the first part, when the harmonies are rich and timeless.
In fact, this is a family celebration, but Richie’s family goes way beyond her kinfolk. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1946, she found a job at NYC’s Henry Street Settlement, and used her family’s music to help the Settlement’s troubled children. Soon, she was performing in Greenwich Village’s coffee houses, and became part of the folk music phenomenon that grew there in the 1950s. She recorded several LPs for Jac Holzman’s new Elektra Records. As was common practice at the time, her songs were recorded by other folk singers and folk groups. This 2-CD set feels like a continuation of that tradition—a sense reinforced by Judy Collins (in very fine voice) singing “One I Love” with long-time folk guitar player Eric Weissberg at her side. The set opens with Suzy Boguss, John McCutcheon and Tim O’Brien on lead vocals, singing “Black Waters” with Kathy Mattea singing harmony; the remarkable Stuart Duncan (of Goat Rodeo fame) on fiddle.
Perhaps more typical, more vintage, more classic Ritchie is Molly Andrews, a traditional singer who comes naturally to this kind of material, as on “Now is the Cool of the Day” with a sweet viola da gamba accompaniment from Tina Chancy.
“Shady Grove” is a traditional song closely associated with Ritchie, and it’s played here, based upon the “Richie family version,” by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. What fun to learn about these musicians? (Rhonda plays a fine harmonica; I like Sparky’s voice, similar to what I enjoy hearing in Taj Mahal.) Looking them up on the internet…hey these guys are connected to Ronstadt Generations (Linda’s brother and other relations), also proponents of traditional music.
Another song that’s bound to tug at the heart, “My Dear Companion,” is a classic harmonizing folk duet about lost love. The intertwined voices: Cathy Fink and Marcy Marzer (14 Grammy nominations, famous for singing to babies—and the rest of us). They’ve been at the folk and bluegrass game for a long time. The years of experience wear so very well.
It’s fun to listen to the popular bluegrass voices of The Bankesters singing harmony beside Alison Brown on banjo and guitar as Dale Ann Bradley nails “Go Dig My Grave” with warm compassion. Bradley is one of bluegrass’s finest vocalists—winner of the IBMA’s best female vocalist award for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
You may recognize “Blue Diamond Mines,” or may think it sounds familiar (the chorus is similar to to “In the Pines,” a . It’s a bluesy bluegrass tune performed by Riki Schneyer with a wonderful quiver in her voice.
Children’s songs are part of the American folk music tradition. They tend to be pure and innocent, or downright silly. “The Bluebird” is an example of the former, sung by John McCutcheon accompanied by his own banjo. “Take time for dreamin’ on a summer’s day… count your blessings with a bluebird’s song…”
Kathy Mattea gets one of the fun songs to sing—the musical equivalent of calling a square dance—recorded live with plenty of energy. Nice fiddle work by Steve Peavy, and fiddling by Eamonn O’Rourke. Better still is the slow-starting, pick-up-the-beat, start-a-chanting “Let the Sun Shine Down on Me,” a reverie that causes many an audience to dance and stomp in utter joy. The recording feels as though a dozen people are making music together, but it’s just a foursome: Kim and Reggie Harris, who do such a great job at folk festivals, accompanied only by percussion (Steve McAlpine and Charlie Pilzer).